Thursday, 11 April 2013

Extending High-Rise

Federic Druot’s and Lacaton & Vassal’s new exhibition at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum Zentrum (DAZ) in Berlin, is partly manifesto and partly ethnographic record of the effect in extending each apartment of the Tour Bois Le Pêtre, a typical 1950s high-rise. “Never Demolish, never remove or replace, always add, transform, and reuse” echoes the sentiment of the late great Theo Crosby, of Pentagram fame, on talking about the gentrification of 1980s Spitalfields Market, claiming all the buildings for the 21st Century had already been built, and this long before todays architects had considered limits exposed by the global economic crisis of 2008. 

Being a fan I have long admired Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal’s aesthetic. The work is always seemingly born of a roving ‘skip-hunters’ eye, inventing ways in which materials are ‘upcycled’ into a proletariat self-build high-tech architecture. Early work, celebrated agricultural prefabricated shed dwellings such as the Dordogne House (1997) that drew attention to the seemingly familiar, what Lacaton Vassal referred to as ‘Naive Architecture’. The house appearing to be a symbol of rural gentrification and reuse a result of depopulation from automated farms reliant on GPS guidance systems, but actually deceptively disguised new-builds the result of precise and detailed contextual studies.

In Lacaton Vassal’s Architekturzentrum Café (2001) project in Vienna, where a missing historic past is connected to an anticipated future evolution, a future memory, one finds a powerful vindication for what makes good architecture great. As master time travellers, doing what Fred Scott calls in ‘On Altering Architecture’ (2008), "the designers work with that of others who have preceded them, when working to alter a building, and also in precedence of those who will come after them”. Scott rightly argues for a rise in art-school-trained designers whose; "use of colour in particular, eclectic use of materials, and variety of finishes" is more suited than the architect for refurbishment work that now eclipses new buildings. Similarly Lacaton Vassal’s use of high-tech fabric curtains and layered celluloid polycarbonate translucency shows a sensitivity and awareness often lacking in many current architect oeuvres.

Walking around the exhibition one experiences the ‘space capsule’ qualities of high-rise living, what JG Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ (1970) refers to as "a huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of the tenants, but the individual resident in isolation. Its staff of air conditioning conduits, elevators, garbage-disposal chutes and electrical switching systems provided a never-failing supply of care and attention that a century earlier would have needed an army of tireless servants," The background city hum lost in digital prints of the cityscape below and replaced in the DAZ gallery by music courtesey of Berlin born, NYC based indiepop band Fenster’s album ‘Bones’ (2012).

The Tour Bois Le Pêtre and high-rises share the same social psychology as fellow ground crawling megastructures and for an ethnographic window, we need look no further than Clare Melhuish's, ‘The Life & Times of the Brunswick, Bloomsbury’ (2006) where,“For one source inside the building, the censorious attitude of neighbours towards local disturbances can be oppressive. She describes the Brunswick as "a very isolating building, the most unfriendly place I have ever lived in". Nobody ever throws a party here, she says, because the noise generated by objectors is likely to be greater than that of the party itself. She believes that much of the problem stems from the design of the building, which doesn't provide workable social spaces for people to meet and interact.".

In focusing on extending the living spaces Lacaton Vassal inevitably neglect the shared social spaces in Tour Bois Le Pêtre, the Ballardian extension of "his one-thousandth share of the cliff face," is the most we get without the social cohesion demand by those who care for future city living. This makes the debate about the success of Tour Bois Le Pêtre very much a developer market led justification where comparisons are made between the costs to extend Tour Bois Le Pêtre, €112,000.00 per flat, to build new, whilst untested, was estimated at €167,000.00 per flat.

Yet possibly the failing of high rise IS the socially constructed brief and the belief, pre-housing boom, that sharing capital unites members who join, contradictory to the current market values of ‘flats’ became ‘apartments’ that typically higher up have greater views and price-tags to match.

Each high-rise is an ethnographic graphic with the upper classes migrating to the upper floors subsidised by the lower floors paying identical maintaince costs in the belief of equality, a belief not shared, that is why the 1950s social housing failed. In the UK the mass revolut in Ballardian high-rise was  dissolved under ‘Right-to-Buy’ selling 20% of state funded mass housing, mostly those on top sold out to those that could afford the increased prices for sky-living. Instead sitting on a reclaimed sofa in the DAZ gallery clutching Ballard’s novel one feels, “A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake”.

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